Mr Hartshorne gripped the back of the chair. His trainers squeaked on the woodblock. Mr Hartshorne had forgotten to pack shoes and ended up wearing his squash trainers with non-marking soles with his grey suit. Mr Slade stared at him.
‘You’d better sit down,’ he said.
Slade opened the envelope and laid the letter face down on his desk.
‘You’re a fool, Brian.’
Mr Hartshorne sat down.
‘A serious allegation has been made-’
Mr Hartshorne drummed his fingertips on his knees.
‘How many years have you got, Brian?’
Slade pushed the letter with a fingertip. His desk smelt of Pledge.
‘I asked how long you’ve been in the profession.’
Mr Hartshorne had to count. He didn’t mark the anniversaries these days. ‘Twenty four years.’
Slade shook his head. He took off his fish-tank glasses, blew a speck of dust from them and examined the light through the lenses.
‘You’ve done twenty four years and then one day you decide to order a pupil to strip naked.’
A pinkish sun fell beyond the horizon, reflected on the frosted fields. Flocks of starlings flew in spirals.
‘What the hell were you thinking of?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
Mr Hartshorne’s feet tapped against the chair legs. ‘It’s not true, for starters,’ he stammered.
It’s not the only report I’ve had.’
Mr Hartshorne watched the headlights of distant cars and trucks snaking along the M6.
‘You’ve been watching Year 3, haven’t you? You’ve been watching them through binoculars.’
Slade slid the letter across the table.
‘Of course, I’ve watched them. I use binoculars when they’re doing cross country.’
Mr Slade pinched the bridge of his nose.
‘Do you think that’s regular behaviour?’
Tiny shards of light danced at the edge of Mr Hartshorne’s vision.
‘It doesn’t look good, Brian. It doesn’t look good at all.’
‘What went wrong, son?’
Brian shrugged. The shot rang out and his body didn’t respond. His guts clenched and cold beads of sweat rolled from his brow. One of the coaches shouted at him to run.
‘Are you injured, kid?’
Brian frowned, shook his head.
‘Jog round then lad. People will understand.’
Brian’s fingers and toes were cold. He flexed his calves, but didn’t move from the line until his father came for him. Brian Senior stomped across the warm-up area, head bowed. He put a mechanical arm around Brian’s shoulders. He couldn’t lead them away fast enough. No one in the crowd cheered for the winner, they watched Brian instead, sensing a bigger story.
In the changing rooms Brian Senior handed him a Styrofoam cup of scalding tea.
‘Drink it,’ he said.
Brian pulled a face. ‘It’s not medicine.’
‘Oh, he speaks.’
Brian sipped the tea. It was weak, milky.
‘I don’t want it.’
‘It’ll do you good.’
‘I don’t want it.’
‘I wish your legs worked as well as your mouth.’
‘You’re ashamed of me.’
Brian Senior didn’t dispute that. Father and son didn’t speak for weeks.
Three letters lay unopened on the hall table beneath the spider plant. He knew the postmarks, recognised the font of the education authority. The phone rang. He counted 14 rings. He’d have to pull the wire from the wall.
He’d never been one for breakfast. His cornflakes, barely touched, had pulped to a soggy mush. His toast was charred, spread thick with margarine. He reached for the remote, grunting at the effort. A thick film had settled on his coffee. It attached to his tongue when he tilted the mug. He flicked through the channels. A beaming couple were trying to sell a converted windmill; teams in canary and pillar-box red sweaters competed at auction for copper bedpans; a woman in tracksuit bottoms was being held back from attacking her mother by men in bomber jackets and earpieces.
Mr Hartshorne frowned. Everyone was shouting and screaming. They were fat and pale with blotchy faces and scraped-back hair. They were faces he knew from bus stops and supermarket queues. All wore tracksuits that somehow didn’t fit. They bulged or clung, exposed ripples of scarred flesh and arse cracks.
Mr Hartshorne smirked at the irony. The country got fatter, so people took to wearing sports gear. Men who couldn’t get up the stairs without gasping dressed like Rocky Marciano to go to the pub. He laughed until tears ran from his cheeks.
He turned the set off and gripped the mantel, stretching his calves and hamstrings. He splashed cold water on his face and stared into the mirror. The starter’s pistol cracked and the lost boy blinked. Mr Hartshorne stared back, determined. He took his pressed and folded tracksuit from the airing cupboard and slipped into it.
Outside, Mr Hartshorne zeroed his stopwatch, filled his lungs and set off for the marsh meadows.
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